China’s Censors Have a New Target: ‘Friends’

China’s Censors Have a New Target: ‘Friends’

HONG KONG — The wildly popular sitcom “Friends” is back on China’s best-known streaming services, but with some big changes to the script.

In the latest Chinese version, when Ross tells his parents he has split from his wife, he doesn’t explain the reason: She is a lesbian living with another woman, is now pregnant and plans to raise the baby with her partner. Instead, the scene simply cuts to his parents’ stunned faces, and the plotline ends there.

There are other, more subtle changes to the show, too.

Joey’s suggestion of a trip to a strip club is translated in Chinese subtitles as “going out to have fun.” When Paul the Wine Guy tells Monica, “I haven’t been able to, uh, perform sexually,” the subtitle says that he has been in “low spirits.” A lament by Rachel that she is more “turned on” by a gravy boat than her fiancé is translated as Rachel being more “happy to see” tableware.

The changes have prompted biting commentary on social media from the show’s many Chinese superfans, who mocked the prudishness of censors and said the alterations reinforced gender stereotypes.

“Friends” is the latest example of foreign entertainment being rewritten in China, as the country embraces more traditional gender roles under its leader, Xi Jinping. Officials have gone so far as to ban portrayals of effeminate men on television.

Even before the regulations went into effect in September, Chinese censors had already been hard at work. In the Chinese version of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the Queen biopic, a crucial scene in which Freddie Mercury, the band’s lead singer, tells his fiancée that he is gay was removed.

The Communist Party wields enormous power over the entertainment business, bending it to produce the narratives it wants to promote. In January, censors changed the end of the movie “Fight Club,” replacing a scene in which a series of buildings were destroyed with a message saying the effort had been thwarted by police, although the original version was soon restored after a massive outcry.

That move came after a much anticipated “Friends” reunion episode last year was missing cameos from Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and BTS when it aired in China because those celebrities had at some point offended the country’s leaders.

“Friends” is hugely popular in China, where at one point many major cities had look-alikes of Central Perk, the cafe that was a gathering point for the show’s characters.

Viewers in China had been able watch the show in an uncensored format over the past decade, but fans of the show are now limited to an officially edited version that is streamed on multiple platforms.

Superfans have been quick to point out omissions or changes in censored episodes and debated the reasons for the cuts.

The hashtag #FriendsDeleted was viewed more than 54 million times on the Chinese social media site Weibo over the weekend, according to a CNN report. By Monday, it had been removed.

“Mostly they don’t want the women in their own country to be awakened,” one person wrote on Chinese social media. “They don’t want them to know women can love women. Otherwise who will help the men to carry on the family line.”

Another commentator pointed out that the writers of “Friends” helped to normalize the L.G.B.T.Q. community with the episode. “And this is something that ‘Friends’ managed to do in 1994,” they wrote, questioning why homosexuality was being censored in China decades later.

Only the first season of “Friends” was made available through online streaming platforms in China earlier this month, and many viewers in the country were already joking about what other scenes would be removed as future episodes become available.

One person wondered how the censors would handle the season in which Phoebe becomes a surrogate mother to her brother. Another quipped that they were willing to bet the equivalent of $15 that the episode in which Monica, Chandler and Rachel discuss seven parts of a woman’s body for pleasure would be deleted.

“I bet 100 yuan,” the person wrote on Weibo, the Chinese social media platform. “That ‘Seven Seven Seven’ is absolutely deleted.”

Cao Li and Li You contributed research.

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